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  4. In 1871, the US almost acquired the Dominican Republic. President Ulysses S. Grant hoped that 'the entire colored population of the United States' would move to the island.

In 1871, the US almost acquired the Dominican Republic. President Ulysses S. Grant hoped that 'the entire colored population of the United States' would move to the island.

DeArbea Walker   

In 1871, the US almost acquired the Dominican Republic. President Ulysses S. Grant hoped that 'the entire colored population of the United States' would move to the island.
  • In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant worked to acquire the Dominican Republic.
  • Grant had concerns about Black Americans' future and how they would coexist with white Southerners.

As calls to decolonize Puerto Rico grow louder, its territorial status serves as a reminder of the United States' not-so-distant colonial past.

Before it annexed Puerto Rico in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, the US made attempts to annex other territories in Latin America, including Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

On June 30, 1871, a bill to annex Santo Domingo (as the Dominican Republic was known) failed in the US Senate. If it had passed, the country would have moved to acquire the Dominican Republic and make it a state.

The political climate of the United States beginning in the late 1860s was rife with questions about what was next for Black Americans. Historians told Insider that in the early 1860s, before the end of the Civil War, politicians in Washington, DC, were concerned with how white people would treat newly emancipated Black Americans. One idea that some politicians considered was urging Black Americans to move away from the mainland entirely.

Some politicians and activists, including Frederick Douglass, supported efforts to annex the Dominican Republic, seeing it as a place where Black Americans could own property and live freely. Douglass saw it as an opportunity to grow the Black American population. Other politicians also had an expansionist mindset for the US.

Upon hearing about the US's desire to expand, leaders of the Dominican Republic reached out to make a deal.

"I think it's kind of a really telling moment in US history in terms of how people thought not only about African Americans but also how they thought about Blacks in the diaspora," Lauren Hammond, an associate professor of history at Augustana College, told Insider. "You could kind of use it almost as a comparative case and raise questions about Puerto Rico's status and statehood."

Ulysses S. Grant said the biggest conflict in the US was a 'prejudice to color'

A few years after the Civil War, it was becoming clear to those in Washington that Reconstruction efforts in the former Confederate-controlled Southern states were failing. President Ulysses S. Grant grew worried about the long-term future of Black Americans.

Drawing on conversations in Washington, Grant came up with a solution. In a memo, he wrote that "prejudice to color" was the biggest conflict in the country and suggested moving Black Americans to the island.

"Caste has no foothold in San Domingo. It is capable of supporting the entire colored population of the United States, should it choose to emigrate," Grant wrote, adding, "The colored man cannot be spared until his place is supplied, but with a refuge like San Domingo his worth here would soon be discovered."

Despite being the last known American president to own an enslaved person, Grant grew up in an abolitionist household, and as a Union general he fought alongside Black soldiers, which may have affected his views on slavery. Grant was not the first US politician who considered sending freed Black people outside the mainland. Afraid that Black and white Americans could not peacefully coexist, President Abraham Lincoln had also proposed sending emancipated Black people to Liberia or Central America.

Hammond told Insider that while Grant was concerned with racism, he was also an expansionist who believed in the Monroe Doctrine, a policy from 1823 that urged European powers not to interfere in the Western Hemisphere. Grant was initially interested in acquiring Cuba, a Spanish territory, but as that was not realistic without war, he turned his interest to the Dominican Republic.

While there is evidence that the US also considered annexing Panama or Brazil at the same time to serve the same purpose, Gerald Horne, a historian who holds the Moores Professorship of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston, told Insider that fell through because those countries were skeptical about why the US would send only its Black population there.

"There was less concern in the Dominican Republic than in other Latin American nations about accepting what was considered to be a 'Trojan horse,'" Horne, the author of "Confronting Black Jacobins," which details the history of the Dominican Republic, told Insider.

A historian says leaders of the Dominican Republic wanted the US to annex the island

After the War of Restoration against Spain, the Dominican Republic was looking for protection, Hammond said. It was in deep debt and susceptible to being reconquered by Spain, so President Buenaventura Báez reached out to the United States.

Báez was aware that Grant was looking to acquire territories off the mainland, so he asked if the Dominican Republic could be annexed.

On February 16, 1870, a vote was held in the Dominican Republic: 15,695 residents voted for annexation, and only 11 voted against. With over 99% of the vote, the referendum passed in the Dominican Republic.

Hammond said she doesn't trust those results. "There ended up being threats from Buenaventura Báez," Hammond told Insider. "So it's actually very difficult to get a true pulse on what was happening in the Dominican Republic."

In the US Senate, the annexation bill to acquire the Dominican Republic failed, by a vote of 28-28, on June 30, 1871. It needed two-thirds of the votes to pass.

Much of the opposition to the bill was led by Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Grant spent months trying to get Sumner on board, but Sumner had one main sticking point: Sumner did not believe that the United States should acquire any territories in the Caribbean or Latin America. Nicholas Guyatt, a professor of North American history at the University of Cambridge, told Insider that's because Sumner believed that warmer climate areas belonged specifically to Black people.

"He gave these speeches about race-blind citizenship, but then he also said specifically on this question that the tropical zone belongs to Black people," Guyatt told Insider. "If you say that, then, what are you saying about other areas, like the subtropical regions of the US?"

Guyatt also said that, given conversations and speeches in Washington, DC, at the time, he believes the US would have granted the Dominican Republic statehood had the annexation vote gone through. Many politicians stressed that the US couldn't be like other empires with unincorporated colonies. However, a few decades later, the country's position had changed.

Had annexation happened, "I think it would have created a new dynamic within the federal system, which would have made the conquest of 1898 very difficult to hold on to these territories like Puerto Rico for a long period of time," Guyatt told Insider.

Most white Southerners didn't support annexation, a historian says

During this time, on the issue of annexation, white Americans largely fell into three groups, Horne told Insider. One group supported removing Black Americans from the mainland to remove any reminders of slavery. Another group supported removing Black Americans because they didn't want the US to become a multiracial republic. And a third group wanted to keep Black people on the mainland because they were a cheap labor supply.

Hammond said that in the South the main sentiment was against annexation, because many Southerners were uncomfortable with more nonwhite people joining the US. There were also whispers that if the US annexed the Dominican Republic, it wouldn't stop there. Some were afraid it would soon take the entire island, including Haiti.

"Once slavery was over, that fear of including additional Black people and those additional Black people perhaps being given rights and treated as equal US citizens was deeply distasteful and disturbing to the vast majority of Southern Democrats," Hammond said.

Overall, Hammond and Horne said the bill failed because it did not have broad support outside Grant's circle.

One historian described Frederick Douglass' judgment as clouded when it came to annexation

A complex part of this story is Douglass' role in the country's desire to acquire the Dominican Republic.

After the bill failed in the Senate, Grant asked Congress to approve a three-person commission to go on a "fact-finding mission" to see if Dominicans supported becoming a part of the US. Douglass was one of the three people.

"My selection to visit Santo Domingo with the commission sent thither was another point indicating the difference between the old time and the new," Douglass said.

Historians told Insider that Douglass' understanding of why the US would annex Santo Domingo seemed misguided. The Chicago Tribune reported that during a speech in December 1871, Douglass suggested the US would annex it through native consent rather than intervention.

Horne said historians have long struggled with how to tell this part of Douglass' story.

Douglass, who was born a slave and became free, was a key abolitionist who advised Lincoln on the ills of slavery. Douglass also had an understanding of European colonialism in the Western Hemisphere and supported independence efforts. But some historians say that he failed to understand the nature of conquest and colonialism when it came to the United States and that he didn't understand the US's domestic motivations for acquiring the Dominican Republic, such as sending Black Americans to the island.

"This was not Fredrick Douglass' finest hour," Horne told Insider. "Many were just so grateful, so gratified by being free of slavery. And I think it sort of clouds the thinking. They were willing to go along with any plan Washington came up with."

Hammond said she sees Douglass' statements from that time through a slightly different lens — Hammond believes Douglass was seeing the annexation of the Dominican Republic as a win for Black Americans, adding voters to the Black electorate and thereby increase the chance of gaining civil rights for Black Americans.

"I think one thing we have to remember is that Frederick Douglass was living in a very complicated time and was a super complicated individual," Hammond told Insider.


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